Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Won in a Cupboard (USA,1914)

This film has a historical importance because, to this date, it is the earliest-surviving film directed by Mabel Normand. She was 21 years old at the time and was at the height of her beauty and vitality. Previously thought to be a lost film, it was discovered in 2010 in New Zealand.

The 1910s comedies by Keystone studios show us that it is possible to be funny with simple resources. They were mainly one or two reelers with very simple plots and the gags were the center of all action. In addition to frantic chases, quick pace, fake facial hair and occasional broad gestures, an important component in those comedies was misunderstanding. And this is exactly what we will see in this film.

A woman is sweeping the floor outside a house and a man with a big sheriff badge approaches her. Then, there’s an intertitle saying: “Dreaming of her ideal” and we see Mabel sitting down outdoors. Two men are shown, one of them approaches Mabel. She does not care very much and leave and walk towards a river and the other man laugh at the man who was rejected. 

It is shown once more the woman who was sweeping the floor and the sheriff. The woman enter the house leaving the man outside speaking a lot. 

The two men are shown again. The other man try her lucky in approaching Mabel while the rejected man look at it from a distance. This other man end up being rejected by Mabel just like the previous one. 

The sheriff return to the police department, the other policemen are idle and the sheriff complain about it. 

Now Mabel is in a sort of forest and both men are still all around her. There is an intertitle: “Her ideal” and we see another man and it is shown to the audiences that they really liked each other, to the disgust of the two men who were interested in Mabel previously in the film. At this point of the film, there is a split screen with both love interests walking towards each other, which create a very beautiful and innocent event. Mabel’s love interest give a fruit to her and she accept it with joy.

On the following scene it is shown the sheriff once more visiting the woman who was out of her house and the audiences can see that there is mutual romantic interest between them.

Both of Mabel’s previous suitors approach the couple, but Mabel refuse to speak to them. The men started to bully Mabel’s love interest and she get angry. A fight take place and everyone start throwing things at each other. The sheriff appear by chance in the middle of the chaos and was hit by accident too. The sheriff beat up Mabel’s suitor and took her away.

It is shown the intertitle: “Mother’s pet”. Mabel’s love interest return home, which is the same house where the woman sweeping the floor live and it become clear that he is her son and a kind of coward person. It is also clear that Mabel is the sheriff’s daughter. Both Mabel and her suitor were admonished by their parents at homed due to the fighting they were involved.

But Mabel’s love interest did not give up and he showed up at her house. Mabel talked to him by the window and meet him outside. Meanwhile, the sheriff was visiting his love interest and at this point it become clear to the audiences that the parents of Mabel and her suitor were having an affair. The boy’s mother enter a cupboard within her house, the sheriff enter the house and does not see her.

Mabel and her suitor meet a tramp while they are walking outdoors. Right afterwards, the couple was passing nearby the boy’s house and he invite Mabel to go inside. The problem is that the sheriff was already within the house and in order to avoid being seen by the couple, the sheriff decided to hide inside a cupboard, the same place where the woman (his sweetheart, the owner of the house and the boy’s mother) was also hiding. Both people realize that their children were outside and got nervous in fear of a scandal if their children found out about their affair. 

Mabel and her sweetheart enter the boy’s home and Mabel see that there is somebody inside the cupboard and she think that the tramp they have met on the street a short time ago was the one who was hiding in the cupboard. The boy go outside and cry for help and meanwhile Mabel barricade the cupboard’s door. Many people in the neighborhood go to the house to help them get rid of the so-called tramp and Mabel also called the police department. 

Chaos ensue as many people go to the boy’s house at the same time, including the policemen and the neighbors carrying rifles. The cupboard is removed from the house and people try to open it in whatever way they can. Of course that after all effort the cupboard’s door was eventually open and everyone knew who was inside. It turned out that the scandal and gossip could not be avoided.

Won in a Cupboard was categorized as a nonsense number by Moving Picture World in 1914 and I have to say this is an average comedy of the era, but it remain worth seeing. It is a nice example of Mabel’s directorial style. She had her own production unit in Keystone studios at the time and it would last for around one year and, during this time, she directed all films of that unit. This film is also a precious witness of a country life that has been gone a long time ago. It’s a joy that the film was recovered after so many years. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Pordenone Silent Film Festival - 2020 - On line version

In such weird year, when the world has stopped due to a pandemic and the humankind has had to assess how to deal with isolation and to do as many activities as home as possible, we have for the first time the on line version of Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which is considered the most important festival devoted to silent films and that has existed for almost 40 years. It started being held in September 1982 when a small group of friends organized a three-day festival in response to the 1976 Friuli earthquake that had devastated much of Northern Italy.

The festival was a pioneering event in the beginning and it has been pioneering now, with the initiative of holding the counterpart of a large cinema festival on line due to a pandemic that impacted the entire world and, for a while, it was particularly harsh with the Northern of Italy itself. As it is the case with all pioneering initiatives, nobody was certain about the results of an on line festival of silent films with attendees of all parts of the world. 

But it truly worked. With the usual careful selection of films mixing rarities and known films from a plenty of countries, Pordenone did not really fail in providing immersion for the audiences. In addition to the films, there were also lectures about the films themselves and silent film music. Pordenone Masterclasses is when the musicians of the festival talk to the audience about their work, which is a rare opportunity to increase the understanding of the films themselves. 

Another pleasant surprise was that together with the introductions of the films the audiences could see the work of film archives in some countries and it was fascinating to have an introduction on how films were restored, to see their facilities, the employees working, the reels on the shelves. It’s a dream for every fan of history of cinema. It is an interesting bridge between past and present and context is also important to the understanding of silent films, especially for the new generations.

They also have an event called Collegium, which according to the festival’s website is: “to attract new, young generations to the discovery of silent cinema and to infiltrate these newcomers into the very special community that has evolved around the Giornate during its three decades. It is designed to take advantage of the unique conditions of the Giornate – a highly concentrated one-week event; the possibility to see an extensive collection of rare archival films; the presence in one place and at one time of many (perhaps most) of the world’s best qualified experts in film history – scholars, historians, archivists, collectors, critics, academics, and just plain enthusiasts”

On the technical side, the films were shown through an Italian platform that worked really well. The films could have their intertitles translated into both Italian and English and were available for 24 hours to be watched. After this time, the films were no longer available. An interesting detail is that there was an interface in each film that reproduced the chairs of a real-life cinema that showed how many people were watching the films at the same time as you. 

Other interesting details is that the audiences could take a peek on the beauty of Pordenone city in the introduction of the films. Artistic Director Jay Weissberg made all introductions and was straightforward and informative. It was an interesting way to have some contact with the Italian cities and their culture.

Of course that nothing replaces the real-life experience of attending the screening of a film with live accompaniment, the get together with fellow silent film fans, the networking but the production made sure that audiences had an as close to real life experience as possible. 

For example, right in the first day there were nine travelogues produced between 1911 and 1939 shown under the name “The Urge to Travel”, which demonstrated that despite being a festival related to the history of the cinema, Pordenone Silent Film festival is also in touch with the current events. This bridge between past and present is very important to contextualize silent films to new audiences and show them that the understanding of silent films helps to figure out the world as it is nowadays. 

The experience that those travelogues provided was truly awesome. Some of them were filmed in such a way as if we were walking down the street with the people who were being filmed and it gave a very interesting feeling of travelling in a time machine. That was really touching because the audiences witnessed an era that has been gone for a long time. And it was only the first round of films of the first day. Afterwards, there were rare films from countries like China, Greece and even lesser known films of the United States, together with classics.

All in all, Pordenone Silent Film Festival, got to keep up with its high standards and not only provided films, but also experiences to the audiences. They could experience travels in time machines, they could listen to scholars talking, watch the films. Variety was also thought of and the films were really interesting and the music was awesome. The festival is a very worthwhile experience even for those who are not hardcore fans of silent films especially because, after an entire week being in touch with those films, it is likely that you will end up becoming a fan too. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Blood and Sand (USA, 1922)

This film was based on the 1909 Spanish novel Sangre y arena (Blood and Sand) by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and the play version of the book by Thomas Cushing. It was produced by Paramount Pictures. Rudolph Valentino was already a heartthrob and very popular among the audiences after the hits of The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in 1921. The latter film was also an adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s book. 

Rudolph Valentino played the role of Juan Gallardo, a bullfighter born in a poor family in a village located in Seville, Spain. He was a relaxed and charismatic lad who enjoyed a life of adventure. His mother was a widow who worried about the safety of Juan due to the fact he played at bullfighting. Juan Gallardo was considered a good-for-nothing son due to his failure to work at his father’s trade and his family strongly disapproved of his lifestyle.

After two years, Juan Gallardo became the idol of the entire Spain, being known even in Madrid. He had many fans who gathered themselves only to see him. It was also clear that he was already a quite wealthy man at this point. 

Then his luck changed and, as it was said in one of the intertitles: “The news of the “Little Shoemaker’s” prowess spread through Seville, attracting the wealthy patrons of the national sport”. His bravery in the arena became a sensation among the local population, which catapulted him into fame. Even Juan’s brother in law, who could not stand him and did not believe his capabilities, started to act in a friendly way towards Juan after he became famous. 

However, success can sometimes spoil people and bring them temptations that are hard to resist. Juan became the idol of the Seville cafés and ended up living a bohemian life around many women and drinking heavily. That was the beginning of Juan Gallardo losing his focus in life.

At his point, Gallardo had already married the beautiful and virtuous Carmen,  “the playmate of his childhood”. Then the sensuous and wealthy Doña Sol (played by actress Nita Naldi) enters Gallardo’s life. She was the niece of the Marquis of Moraima, “breeder of the finest bulls in Spain” and widow of an ambassador and quite popular among kings and diplomats of Europe for her beauty. At first Gallardo tried to resist to Doña Sol’s interest in him, but they ended up having an affair, which would jeopardize Gallardo both socially and professionally while Carmen knew about the affair through the newspapers. And she suffered as the virtuous woman she was. In silence, always devoted, without complaints. At the same timed Gallardo’s friends have noticed that he changed and seemed out of focus and worried.

Once more we see in a silent film a woman being portrayed as a “vamp”, the woman who represented temptation and could ruin lives of honest men with her seducing powers. This includes the famous mention to sadomasochism, which was rather daring for the era and Doña Sol being called “serpent from hell” in one of intertitles when Gallardo was divided between the love-hate feelings and he could no longer have control over his own emotions.

Knowing that Gallardo was trying to drift away from her, Doña Sol followed him to his home village. She was not being used to be rejected and she brought many problems to Gallardo by imposing her presence and tension reached the point when Doña Sol told about her affair with Gallardo to his wife and mother, which had apparently destroyed his marriage. It was the beginning of the end of Gallardo’s peace even within his own household.

Gallardo got more and more depressed and it reflected on his performance in the arena. He was no longer as careful with his well being as before and he became “the gossip of Spain”. A good bullfighter needed to be concentrated all the time due to the danger of his profession and this was definitely a bad sign. One day Gallardo received a letter from Carmen asking him to give up the arena, but it was his profession, he had no savings and if he quit bullfighting at that point he would certainly return to poverty. Carmen sensed that Gallardo was in danger and it would turn out to be a prophecy. This only showed that the connection between Gallardo and Carmen was so pure, so deep that they could communicate with each other even without words. Something so different from his connection with Doña Sol, which have never been beyond physical attraction deprived of further feelings.

Another bullfighting, Doña Sol was in the audience, Gallardo was distressed and quiet, there was tension in the air. Other bullfighters and even audience members noticed that Gallardo was more reckless than ever. And right in the middle of the audience the village’s bandit was shot, he mentioned Gallardo and passed away immediately. At the same time, Gallardo had a feeling of terror, did not know what to do and lost confidence. He was hit by a bull, fell down and was removed from the arena. Doña Sol did not even notice what was going on amid her own selfishness and superficiality. She was directly told that Gallardo was dying but did not care and did not even care to leave the audience and see Gallardo or comfort his relatives. On the other hand, Carmen was by his side all the time until the end with the devotion that only a virtuous woman could have for her husband. 

A priest was called. In Gallardo’s last moments, he ask for Carmen’s forgiveness and they reconciled.  Gallardo passed away in a very sad circumstance but at least in peace with his sweet wife Carmen, the only woman he has truly ever loved.

The plot has the expected melodrama with occasional overacting (especially by Valentino and Nita Naldi in their most torrid scenes) and some stereotyped representations of other peoples. However, it remains interesting in the sense that it was critical of bullfighting and the rise and downfall of the main character (Gallardo, played by Valentino) gives him a degree of humanity that does not really age easily.  We still can see so often that a poor man’s way up to climb the social ladder is choosing a profession where he will face death and this can have some sad consequences sometimes.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Conquering Power (USA, 1921)

This film was made a short time after huge Rudolph Valentino’s hit, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA, 1921) and it was the second and last collaboration of Valentino and Rex Ingram, the latter would subsequently direct Ramon Novarro’s films.  The Conquering Power (USA, 1921) was based on the novel Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac. The plot is about the conquering power of love, and all barriers it is capable to overcome, plus the maturity of a man from boyhood to adulthood due to adversities of life. It is also portrayed how the effects of greed can be harmful to a person.

Valentino plays the role of Charles Grandet, a French playboy who lived a careless life and all worldly pleasures to the full, as it can be seen by his lavish birthday party in the beginning of the film, which was interrupted by the earlier return of Victor Grandet, his father, from a trip. Upon his return, Victor had a serious conversation with Charles about his brother, Père Grandet, who he had not seen for around twenty five years and recommended Charles to be on friendly terms with him. Victor seemed to be rather distressed and it is hinted that he had serious financial problems.

Victor had committed suicide a short time afterwards and after his death, Charles ended up living with his uncle. Père Grandet, despite of being rich himself, he was a miserly, who treated both the poorer people from his province and his own family with an iron fist. At the house of his uncle Charles met and fell in love with his cousin, Eugenie Grandet. Eugenie was a virtuous, beautiful and sweet girl, quite in demand by the suitors of her village. 

Charles brought to his uncle’s house a letter by Victor, who claimed that he had lost his fortune due to stock market speculation and he hoped that Père would be a father for his son. The tone if this letter suggested that Victor would die soon, which actually happened and this tragic event left Charles penniless. 

While love flourished between both cousins, Père received a letter stating that Victor’s debts had been reduced and it meant that Charles has not lost all his money, after all. To avoid that Charles recovered his money and that his love for Eugenie took root, Père decided to send Charles away for the Martinique. However, before Charles’ departure, Père made him sign a document renouncing to all his inheritance, something that Charles found strange as his father had left no estate. Despite that suspicious signal, Charles did not realize that Père could have been behind any scam to take advantage of him.

While Charles was away he wrote to Eugenie regularly, telling her about his life in Martinique, that he was prospering there, etc. Nevertheless, his letters never came to her because Père  was hiding everything and it made Eugenie think that Charles had forgotten about her. On the other hand, Père had written Charles claiming that he had arranged a marriage for Eugenie and therefore it would be advisable he did not keep any further correspondence with her. The claim was a lie and there was no marriage, but Charles could not possibly know. But both Charles and Eugenie never forgot each other.

One day Père asked Eugenie to see her gold because he wanted to invest it, but she could not give it to him because Eugenie had lent it to Charles previously, so he could have some money to restart his life. When Père realized Eugenie had given her gold to Charles, he locked her in her bedroom and it was when the worst ordeal of Eugenie began. However, the news of Eugenie’s imprisonment in her room became the topic of the village and the villagers have also noticed how maddened Père was. 

Some scenes later it is revealed to the audience that Eugenie was not actually Père’s daughter and that  Eugenie actually had the right of demanding a division of his fortune if only she knew the truth. 

Speaking of the truth, Eugenie eventually found out Charles’ letters to her hidden in her own house, none of them had ever been given to her. She also found the letter that stated that Victor’s debts were reduced and that Charles was not penniless, after all. The same letter that had never been disclosed to Charles, who left to Martinica thinking his father had not left any estate. 

Père found out that Eugenie found the letters. She runs away and he gets locked in his cellar, totally maddened by his own greed and evilness. This is one of the most famous scenes of the film, beautifully played and acted by actor Ralph Lewis (who played the role of Père in a convincing and skillful way) and the favorite scene of many people. Right afterwards Père passed away, leaving Eugenie a very rich woman and it was suggested to her to look for a husband. She announces her engagement, but shortly after is reunited with Charles.

My personal favorite part of the film is the end, when after some years Charles returned from France, now a very rich man and they both met each other again in the same place where they used to gather together in the past, this time older and with different appearances. However, the love and joy in seeing each other was still the same. Their facial expressions of happiness were something very touching to see, as they show that love was the real conquering power, even beyond the action of gold and time. Charles did not come to the village before thinking that Eugenie was married, but she was actually still single and it was when they were finally reunited.

Cobra (USA,1925)

I have always personally believed that, despite occasional typecasting and overacting in some films, Italian actor Rudolph Valentino’s acting skills did shine bright in his more romantically-oriented films. Unfortunately his acting ended up overshadowed by his heartthrob reputation and the tragic consequences of his death, with only 31 years old in 1926. 

Valentino plays the impoverished Italian nobleman, Count Rodrigo Torriani, a philanderer who was often in the company of beautiful women. In the beginning of the film he befriended an American tourist (Jack Dorning) and, as he had shown a deep understanding of antiquities during their talks, Dorning invited Torriani to work with him in New York, as an antiques export. The proposal was gladly accepted. 

A short time after arriving in New York, Torriani realized that he would not really get rid of his weakness for beautiful women. He fell genuinely and purely in love with Dorning's secretary Mary Drake, but she did not return his interest, which was an irony because it was the first time Torriani has ever loved a woman. 

On the other hand, he has also met Elise, a gold digger, who was looking for a rich husband. Elise was immediately interested in Torriani, thinking he was rich, but Torriani had no interest in her whatsoeverf. When Torriani told her that all the money actually belonged to Dorning, she directed her attention to him even though she had never forgotten Torriani. Having realized that Dorning was interested in Elise, Torriani encouraged him to have a relationship with her, which quickly happened. 

Dorning fell madly in love for Elise and they soon got married. However, after around one year of marriage -although Dorning was still in love and happy – it became clear that Elise was being unfaithful to her husband. To make things worse, Elise started to make advancements to Torriani again, to the point of forcing herself to him in his office. Torriani, in consideration for his friend, resisted her seduction as much as he could but, when she invited him to go to a hotel with her, he ended up accepting her proposal. But, as soon as they arrived at the hotel, Torriani felt guilty of betraying his friend and left the hotel immediately before anything more intimate happened between them both. 

It turned out to be a wise decision because the hotel caught fire that same night, killing both Elise and one of her other lovers (who she called to stay with her in the hotel after Torriani left). The bodies of both people were so severely burned that it was not possible to identify them. After having learned of his wife’s disappearance, Dorning was heartbroken. For a while he could not know where his wife was or if she would ever return. He fell into depression and Torriani took care of him, unable to return what happened at that night at the hotel. He did not dare to make his friend suffer by knowing which kind of woman Elise was.

After a while, while browsing through Elise’s papers, Dorning found letters of some of her lovers to her and he also found out that she was in the habit of frequenting that hotel that caught fire and she was probably one of people who passed away. He also found out a letter of Torriani to Elise, refusing her love. Dorning was proud of his friends loyalty, but it was the moment when Torriani confessed everything that happened that night between him and Elise and that it was him who had taken Elise to the hotel the night she died and that he felt too guilty to remain in the United States and that he would return to Italy. Dorning answered saying it was better if they both forgot what happened and that Torriani could return to Italy to rest, but he asked his friend to return after a while and keep on working with him. 

Torriani indeed returned and it seemed that everything would run smoothly, but it was not what happened. Mary Drake seemed to be finally interested in Torriani, but he was still feeling too guilty about Elise’s death and could not immediately return her interest due to his grief. After a while, he heard that both Mary Drake and Dorning were dating and that Dorning was very happy with her. He talked to Dorning and he confirmed to Torriani to be deeply in love with Mary Drake. 

After having heard of it, Torriani decided to renounce to the only woman he has ever truly loved. He lied to her claiming he was still the same womanizer of always and, feeling guilty and determined not to be on the way of his friend’s happiness for a second time, Torriani left the United States and returned to Italy, this time definitively. 

One year later Valentino passed tragically away and his funeral has caused an unprecedented commotion. His successful career lasted only around five years (from 1921 to 1926). His fate in talkies is only a matter of speculation, as all his films were made during the silent era. Nevertheless, I do believe that if he got to totally avoid typecasting in ethnically-stereotyped films and devoted himself to romantic dramas, it would have solidified his career and make him being more seriously taken by some critics. But unfortunately there was no time for it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Foolish Wives (USA,1922)

Director Eric von Stroheim, despite making long and extravagant films – often having as scenery lands far away – he could also provide fluid, light-hearted plots with touches of humor. He was a competent director, who particularly excelled in fairy tale -like plots with touches of comedy, as in this film.

Stroheim could often have problems with the studios due to overbudgeting and excessively long films and it was not different here. The original printing lasted around eight hours and it was cut by the studio to a more conventional format and it shrank even more throughout the years. Despite having made a name for himself as a skilled director, his multiple clashes with studios made him as of early 1930ies end up being an actor in other people’s films. He did have some noteworthy roles, such as, for instance in Sunset Boulevard (USA, 1950) though. 

In a mansion by the sea in Monte Carlo (according to the first intertitle: “The Villa Amorosa – secluded yet within easy reach of Monte Carlo -leased for the season by three members of the Russian aristocracy”) it lives a man who socially identifies himself as His Excellency Captain Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin -but who is merely a poor scoundrel  who seduced and manipulated women in order to obtain financial advantages from them – (a role played by Stroheim himself) is a member of former Russian nobility who is in the habit of seducing rich women in order to obtain financial advantages. He has the assistance of his two “cousins”; "Princess" Vera Petchnikoff and "Her Highness" Olga Petchnikof (both of them partners in crime and possibly his lovers too).

The three of them have an lavish and idle lifestyle, which even included caviar as breakfast, as it can be seen in a scene in the beginning of the film. Stroheim has reportedly requested the studio to purchase real caviar for the sake of realism on camera. Indeed, the breakfast scene – with a table full of sophisticated food in a huge mansion and with a maid to serve them -gives the audiences a good idea of the level of luxury of the “family”. 

Then the group receive the visit of Cesare Ventucci, who supply the group with counterfeit bills which would be passed in the Cassino. Ventucci has a daughter with special necessities called Marietta who he raised by himself after his wife passed away and it becomes clear to the audience that Count Karamzin was developing an interest for the girl.

Being a compulsive womanizer, the count also made advances (and even marriage promises) to Maruschka, the maid. This part of the film ends up irreversibly impacting the film later on.

One day the count heard about the arrival on board of the U.S. Cruiser “Salem” of the Commissioner Plenipotentiary of the United States and his wife, called Helen Hughes. She was a naïve woman, younger than her husband (she was 21 years old, while he was 41 years old). Although Mr. Hughes realized that the count was flirting with his wife and was never away for too long, the count got to easily enchant her with his charm and extroverted personality. Furthermore, the friendship with those distinguished foreigners would give the group more social legitimacy and nobody would suspect that they never belonged to the Russian nobility after all. 

And this association with the fake nobility members would end up involving Mr. Hughes in some rather embarrassing situations. For instance: 

A. The Count was in the habit of going out with Helen Hughes together with his “cousins”. One day, they went to the countryside and the Count walked alone with Mrs. Hughes while one of his cousins was on the table waiting for their return. However, it suddenly started to rain torrentially and the Count and Mrs. Hughes ended up being stranded in a more isolated place, just the two of them, leaving the “cousin” behind. 

This “cousin” called Mr. Hughes and told him that his wife was safe with them at the Hotel des Reves and, due to the heavy rain, she would not be able to return home that night. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hughes was fainted in a scary-looking house being taken care of by the Count and an older woman. The count told Mrs. Hughes that her foot needed rest and that the rain prevented them from returning home that night. 

B. Once the Count told Mrs. Hughes that he urgently needed money, as he had a life or death matter to solve and asked her to meet him in a building at night.  Maruschka, seeing that the Count was did not really care about her and that his marriage promise was not true, ended up setting the building on fire. Both the Count and Mrs. Hughes are trapped and the firefighters were called. The Count jumped in order to save himself, leaving Mrs. Hughes behind. She eventually got to jump too and was looked after by her husband, who saw the Count’s letter asking money for his wife and realized she was being the victim of a scam. 

The Count ended up being rejected by the local high society due to the ensuing scandal and he subsequently tried to seduce Marietta, but her father sees it and ends up murdering the Count and throwing his body on the sewage. His “cousins” were arrested afterwards and the Hughes couple continued with their marriage without further problems.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Sherlock Jr. (USA,1924)

Buster Keaton is famous for his masterpieces The General (USA, 1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (USA, 1928), but this cute little gem is within the same level of aforementioned films and one of most elaborate Keaton works in terms of special effects.

With a highly relatable plot of a boy in a humble existence who wished to have a more successful life, naturalistic acting with touches of romanticism (mixed with a plenty of physical gags, typical of Keaton’s work) this charming little comedy has stood well the test of time and could delight modern-day audiences without difficulty. After all, cinema always has the power of transforming lives and make people’s dreams come true.

Buster Keaton works as a projectionist who studies to be a detective too. He operates the projector in a small town movie theater and also does the cleaning. His working routine is shown in the beginning of the film, which provides a good glimpse of what 1920s movie theaters looked like. As the said in one of initial intertitles of the film “ (…) While employed as a moving picture operator in a small town theater he was also studying to be a detective”. Keaton did not always manage to multitask his profession and his studies, but he had good intentions and did the best he could.

Keaton is also in love with a pretty girl, but he has an evil rival for her affections. None of them is particularly wealthy and could not afford giving her expensive gifts, for instance. One day both suitors visit the girl in her house and suddenly her father had his pocket watch stolen. Keaton volunteers to find out who had stolen it, but he isn’t particularly skilled as a detective yet and, to make things worse, his rival gets to put the pawn ticket of the watch in his pocket. Keaton ended up being accused of the crime and is kicked out of the house of his sweetheart. 

Buster Keaton was well-known for making his own stunts, many of them quite hair-raising and risky, and he did not care if it was dangerous or not. He seldom got hurt, but this time he had hurt himself very badly - and without even knowing it. While making this film, Keaton suffered at least two accidents, one of those became very spoken about by Buster Keaton scholars. In a scene Keaton followed closely the other suitor right after being kicked out of his sweetheart’s house until both of them embark a train and -for offscreen reasons -this scene became famous. It is in this scene where the most serious accident occurred. While on top of the train he was struck by the flow of water from a water tower. The force of the water was far greater than he had anticipated, which caused him to fall off the rope straight on the train track. He got to finish this scene, which was a chase, then interrupted the filming briefly and was back to work some days later. Around eleven years later, during a routine checkup, Keaton was told by a doctor that he had broken his neck in the past based on a x ray which showed a callus had had grown over the fracture on his neck. The second accident was during a bicycle chase scene displayed close to the end of the film, which was less serious than the first accident mentioned above.

What makes Sherlock Junior a special film is that it is a film within a film with many incredible gags and techniques. The whole show begins when Keaton fall asleep as a projectionist while showing a film in the movie theater. This film within the film is called “Hearts and Pearls”. Inside his dream, as a projectionist, Keaton tries to enter the “Hearts and Pearls” film that was being shown on screen, but he was kicked off by one of the actors. Subsequently, Keaton manages to enter the screen and becomes part of the film “Hearts and Pearls” and in this film inside the film the famous detective Sherlock Jr. (Keaton himself) is called to solve a crime. The pearls had been stolen in the house of a wealthy family and the real criminals prepared a trap for Sherlock Jr. -who was called “the crime-crushing criminologist” according to one of intertitles -but the trap did not work out and the detective left the house free from any harm and solved the crime right afterwards.

Meanwhile, the girl went to the pawn brokers carrying her father’s watch and asked the salesman to describe the man who had pawned that watch. He had described her other suitor and at that moment the suitor was coincidently passing by the store and the salesman had confirmed it was that guy who had pawned the watch.

When Keaton awakened and found out that his Sherlock Junior adventure had been just a dream, the girl was in his workplace to tell him that her father had committed a serious mistake and that he found out Keaton was innocent and did not steal the watch. Then, the film “Hearts and Pearls” was still being shown on screen and while talking to the girl he realized that his life had finally got similar to the plot of the film and this time he was not dreaming. It was true, his dreams had started to come true.

The plot is easy to understand and very human. After all, many people have already dreamed with social recognition and success while performing their ordinary duties. The romanticism between Keaton and the girl is similar to 1920s Harold Lloyd’s comedies and by this time the narrative style was well-established in Hollywood, not too different from the narratives from modern-day films.